Libraries are meant to be safe spaces where people, young and old, come to spend time to relax and learn. It’s where they should be able to read books in peace or access the internet to do personal projects or school assignments. But some Cape Town libraries have become the targets of petty criminals and are often forced to work under the threat of gang violence.
One such library is in Hanover Park which has to close intermittently due to violence at the neighbouring taxi terminus.
Lucien Ruiters, manager of the Hanover Park Library, says from the library window, he has seen people being robbed, stabbed, and police officers making arrests. Regardless, the library has become a safe haven for many, to a point that “you don’t even know that you’re in the midst of gang war,” he says.
Ruiters says that although Hanover Park has a lot of gang violence, the library area is regarded as safer because police often patrol here.
“Everyone needs a place where they feel they can belong … and the City library provides that.” He says the library is a place where you can “explore a world alternative to what your reality is and this is why the library needs to stay open” for people from the surrounding communities.
Apart from books, the Hanover Park library is used by the nearby clinic for patient support workshops. It also has a gaming room with two consoles where children can relax and “just be a child”, he says. And even though they sometimes hear the sound of gunshots in the area, Ruiters remains passionate about “the need to create and continue to maintain that artificial safety net” that this library offers.
The Bellville Public library has also been battling with crime for a number of years. Chief librarian, Veniwe Robo, says that they have had five break-ins in 2023 alone.
“By the look of things, they’re after the copper,” she says. So far, the library has had its computer, fan, coin box, projector, tablecloths, aircon cables and flood light stolen. The photocopy machines have also been vandalised. “I can’t keep up”, says Robo.
The last break-in on 11 October left the library completely in the dark, without electricity. “No aircon, no electricity. Nothing,” she says. The power was only restored on the evening of 19 October.
Robo says that copper was stolen both inside and outside the library and that the criminals shot at the security guards when they investigated the theft. “We are not safe here,” she says.
Robo says that the lack of electricity caused tremendous issues for library users. “They cannot access the internet. They cannot type anything. They cannot apply for jobs.” The library used two tablets to assist with the issuing of books, but the process wasn’t ideal.
Robo says that she wishes criminals would stop targeting the library. “If they can understand the value of this library… the value of our collections. The value of our existence.” Regardless of all these issues, Robo is also determined to keep the library open.
In a statement last week, the City of Cape Town noted other libraries that have been hit by crime. These include the Manenberg library where two dead bodies were recently found following a shooting in the area. The Khayelitsha and Leonsdale libraries also face closure intermittently due to shootings in the areas. The Delft South library, Masiphumelele library and Moses Mabhida library have been affected by cable theft, while the Macassar library was closed due to unrest.